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High Crimes, Chapter 11

Everest, Advanced Base Camp. [Photo] Michael Kodas

Editor’s Note: The following story–an excerpt from the recently released nonfiction novel High Crimes–reveals the dark underbelly of high-altitude mountaineering: theft. Above 8000 meters, loss of valuables can also mean the loss of life. For the few who engage in this niche thievery, the high stakes for the victim are not only acceptable but, in some cases, desirable. Continue reading to find out more.

Alpinist gives special thanks to author Michael Kodas and publisher Hyperion for their permission to reveal these atrocities to our readers.

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Chapter Eleven

Chinese Base Camp, Mount Everest–April 17, 2004

Climbing teams on the world’s highest mountains move like yo-yos–climbing up the mountain to set a new high point, spending a night or two there, then descending to recover from the effort and adjust to the thinner air. To acclimatize on the north side of Everest, most climbers will make one or two trips from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp and back, before moving in at the higher camp. When they feel comfortable there, they make a round trip or two up to Camp One, the first of the three high camps that lead to the summit.

For their summit push, climbers plan to spend a night or two in each of the high camps on their route. On their summit day, they start climbing before midnight in hopes of reaching the climb’s most difficult section–the aluminum ladder scaling a bluff called the Second Step–around first light. By midmorning, they should be standing on the summit in order to have enough time to descend to a lower camp by early afternoon.

The first hike to ABC and back is vital, both for the human body’s acclimatization to the altitude and for the team’s adjustment to working together. For most, Interim Camp is essential to that trip–a rugged way station that breaks the thirteen-mile climb from the 17,000-foot Base Camp to the 21,500-foot Advanced Base Camp into two arduous but manageable parts.

But on the morning of the Connecticut team’s first hike up the mountain, we stood amid bedlam. Dozens of yaks arrived in small herds. Their drivers weighed our loads and haggled angrily through the morning as team members packed and repacked the barrels and duffel bags that would ride atop the beasts to ABC. Anne had resolved George’s dispute with Dawa Sherpa over the number and cost of the yaks Asian Trekking was providing us, a deal that George resented. “Anne has stabbed us in the back,” he said when the subject came up. Now as the yaks moved out, George and Lhakpa, our Everest veterans, stayed in the cook tent while those of us who had never been there before struggled to make sense of the mess.

Carolyn and I, with coughs and stomach illnesses to recover from and dispatches to send back to the States, decided to ascend a day after our teammates. It was imperative that we have a tent in Interim Camp. We had hardly spoken with Lhakpa, our “leader on the mountain,” since our arrival in Base Camp, but we stopped her twice before she headed up, and she assured us that we would have a shelter. Later, the rest of the climbers reported that the chaos only worsened in the intermediate camp. They waited for hours in the cold before the yaks with their tents and sleeping bags arrived, and few of them could find their gear before the sun set. Dinner–some salty water soup–wasn’t ready until after dark. In the morning they could barely stomach their breakfast and had no water for the six-mile hike to ABC, 2,000 feet higher in the atmosphere.

As the team started out on that day’s climb, Anne, our other leader, reminded the Sherpas who were breaking camp that they needed to leave a tent for Carolyn and me. She was told that our Tibetan porters would know where to take us: a small mess tent nestled in the hills. All the mountaineering tents were broken down and packed onto the yaks. But back in Base Camp, we were only just hiring the porters, so there was no way they would know where we were intended to camp.

By the time Carolyn and I completed the hike to Interim Camp late that day, snow was lashing sideways and darkness was falling. Our fingers were numb, our feet soaked, and our lungs sucked desperately at the thin air. We stumbled over the rocky hills that separate the 19,000-foot-high camp into clusters of tents in between the seracs–pinnacles pushed up by the moving glacier–that circle the moraine like fifty-foot sharks’ fins made of ice, but we couldn’t find our shelter. The two teenage Tibetan porters who helped us carry our gear spoke no English and looked both puzzled and frightened as we hunted for the dome of nylon that our teammates were supposed to have left for us. Without it, we were looking at a night out in a storm on Mount Everest.

The large military mess tent was our last hope.

“I don’t know where your camp is,” said a man in sneakers and jeans slouching in the corner. “But at least come in for a cup of tea. It’s really miserable out there.”

Everest, Camp 1. [Photo] Michael Kodas

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

We dined in that tent with commercial expedition leader Dan Mazur and many of his thirty-eight clients. After dinner, we slept there with Arnold Coster, a Dutch climber, and four Tibetan mountaineering porters who complained that they had never had to share a tent with white people before. The next night, with our phantom tent still eluding us, Coster invited us to crowd into the mountaineering tent he had set up. We slept, with overwhelming gratitude for the strangers who had taken us in and angry frustration with our own climbing partners who left us without one of the basic needs for surviving in the mountains. When we left, Mazur told us he usually charges $200 a day for trekkers and climbers who drop in on the expeditions of his company, SummitClimb. This might seem an outrageous price for a couple of meals and space in a tent, until you considered the cost of getting food and gear up high on Everest. However, five minutes after taking our money, Dan came back and returned it to us.

“Let’s just keep this on the favor basis,” he said. “You’d take in a couple of my climbers in a storm, right? It’s a shame, what’s happening to your team. Everest makes people grow horns.”

When I continued up to Advanced Base Camp that day, I ran into my teammates Chuck, Dave, and Dan Lochner, who were descending. Chuck had vomited regularly since our arrival in Tibet. He could hide his illness lower on the mountain, but in Advanced Base Camp his swollen, listless face was impossible to miss. Dave and Dan were also sick and were making the torturously slow descent with him. By noon it started to snow, and wind blasted the mountain. They reached Interim Camp at three p.m. and Dave decided to stay there.

“I could have slept anywhere,” he said, noting that he had a sleeping pad and a down suit with him. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to walk anymore, and I didn’t need to.”

Dan decided to stay with him, but had nothing to keep him warm overnight. Members of a Greek expedition gave Dan a blanket, fed the two of them, and put them up with their Sherpas for the night. Chuck, however, wanted to continue down, so he found a doctor, told him about the condition of his friends, and headed out.

“By the time I got down to Base Camp, I was pretty much hallucinating,” he said later. “I was shot.”

After he staggered into Base Camp, Carolyn, who had also returned to the low camp that day, expressed shock that Chuck had left his friends behind. She also complained about the missing Interim Camp tent.

“This is a hard-core mountaineering expedition,” Chuck responded. “If you can’t hack it, you shouldn’t be here.”

The next morning, the Greeks fed Dave porridge with nuts that caused an allergic reaction and made him vomit. The team’s doctor gave him medication that left him holding his knees on the ground. He, like Carolyn and I, sought help in Mazur’s Interim Camp mess tent.

Staying healthy is often a greater challenge than the climbing. Some mountain maladies are killers: Pulmonary edema drowns climbers in their own blood; cerebral edema fills the skull with fluid. The body, desperate to increase the density of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in a climber’s veins, will pull fluid out of the blood and store it elsewhere. Skin gets puffy, limbs occasionally swell, but these edemas are generally harmless. If the fluid builds up in the lungs or the brain, however, the condition will quickly turn fatal. The only cure is getting to a lower elevation, fast.

Other illnesses are just uncomfortable and inconvenient. Acute mountain sickness brings nausea and headaches to many climbers. Cheyne-Stokes respiration, while generally harmless, causes climbers to hold their breath when they sleep so they awaken gasping and terrified. Third World sanitation gives others water- and food-borne illnesses such as giardia and dysentery. And in this oxygen-poor environment, even common colds and sore throats are guaranteed to get worse without a trip down, a round of antibiotics, or both.

After everyone was back in Base Camp three days later, we gathered in our dining tent for a debriefing.

“If we make these kinds of mistakes up high,” George said, “I guarantee you it could be fatal….To this point, we’ve had other expeditions help us a lot, and that’s going to get embarrassing.”

We wouldn’t have had to rely on other expeditions during our trip to ABC, Anne pointed out, if we played like a team. “It was two days of every man for himself,” she said.

Everest, Advanced Base Camp. [Photo] Michael Kodas

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Back in Base Camp, it was not the persistent illnesses and relentless cold but boredom that caused the most discomfort. Books, stereos, and countless trips to Hotel California for beer and cards passed the time as the climbers acclimatized. Computers provided e-mail during the day and action films on DVD at night: Kill Bill at the Himalayan Experience camp; Gladiator at ours. Nobody brings romantic comedies to Everest. Beer flowed every afternoon. Vodka and whiskey marked special occasions.

During an evening of drinking, George gave Chuck a blow-by-blow account of the tension and infighting that plagued the Romanian national expedition he climbed with in 2003. But it was talk of raiding other teams’ caches of oxygen that troubled Chuck.

“This is the Connecticut Everest Expedition. This is my name and my reputation. We’re not stealing oxygen,” Chuck told Anne afterward.

But a few days later Anne and Carolyn were surprised to hear Chuck say that there was plenty of excess oxygen and abandoned equipment in the higher camps, and that he would take whatever he needed.

“They’ve told me how to do it,” he said, explaining that with found bottles of oxygen, you could just open up the valves inside a sealed tent, which then inflates with oxygen, thereby avoiding the inconvenience of wearing the oxygen mask while sleeping.

Although in dire circumstances climbers will take advantage of whatever resources they must to survive, most try to compensate the people whose supplies they use. However, the value of the tanks of oxygen–around $450–has made them a constant target for theft, and dozens of tanks are reported stolen every year. Veteran guide Wally Berg recounted to me how an entire shipment of his oxygen tanks vanished one year. One of his Sherpas tipped him off that a Russian team that claimed to be climbing without using supplemental oxygen had stolen his gas. Wally visited their camp and found a strangely shaped table in their mess tent. He pulled the tablecloth off, and there was his crate of oxygen tanks.

I couldn’t believe Chuck would appropriate anything vital to the survival of other climbers. He had enough oxygen to get to the summit without helping himself to anybody else’s. And for all I know, he got there using only the gas he purchased.

To some mountaineers, rows of tents stocked with equipment are a buffet. With only a thin sheet of nylon and a zipper in between them and whatever resources they need to get to the top of the mountain, survive a desperate situation, or increase their earnings when they get back down, many just help themselves. But even petty thefts at this altitude can be deadly.

Marcin Miotk, a Polish climber, arrived at Everest’s Chinese Base Camp in May 2005, after making an unsuccessful attempt to climb Annapurna, the deadliest of the 8,000-meter peaks. He planned to ascend Everest solo, without Sherpas, and using no supplemental oxygen–the first Polish mountaineer to climb Everest without it. On May 29, Marcin started toward the summit, stocking tents at Camp One and Camp Two with gear, but retreated to ABC due to high winds that made a summit attempt without bottled oxygen too dangerous. Austrian friends who continued up left a sleeping bag for him in Camp Three, the highest camp on the mountain.

Two days later, an unprecedented late weather window opened and Marcin headed for the summit, climbing fast enough to make it to Camp One at midday, which proved to be fortuitous. When he opened his tent flap, he found that it had been raided. The Gore-Tex clothes he had left there for extra warmth had been stolen. He was irritated, but could get by without the clothes, and had planned to climb all the way to Camp Two that day anyway. But when he arrived at Camp Two hours later, he discovered his tent there had also been pillaged, this time burglarized of equipment crucial to his survival–his sleeping bag, gloves, windstopper pants and jacket, socks, and headlamp. With night coming on, the situation was desperate, so Marcin borrowed an unused sleeping bag from a nearby tent, which he returned in the morning before heading up again. With no supplemental oxygen or extra layers of clothing, Marcin was vulnerable to the cold, but the loss of his headlamp was the real problem in continuing his ascent. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to start the climb from Camp Three to the summit in the middle of the night as almost every other climber does, forcing him to make his summit bid dangerously late in the day and leaving him little time to make it back to his tent before dark. Since he was climbing without bottled gas, he already had very little margin for error. During his climb to Camp Three, Marcin passed nearly fifty climbers heading down the mountain and asked many of them to borrow a light. Nobody would lend him one. He moved in at Camp Three, set up his gear for the night, and started for the summit at five thirty the next morning, climbing without a backpack so as to move more quickly. All the other climbers he saw were on their way down, having already summited or turned back. Marcin reached the top at two thirty that afternoon, the last summit of the season. He was back at his tent between seven and seven thirty; the setting sun was just touching the horizon. Exhausted, he wanted only to crawl into his sleeping bag and start his stove. But his tent had been looted again. Marcin picked through the mess that was left and tried to find his equipment, but it was all gone. His sleeping bag, stove, extra clothes, even his medications were stolen. And with the sun going down, he had only a few minutes to find replacements before he froze to death.

“Everything that seemed of any value was gone,” Marcin wrote in an open letter to various mountaineering Web sites. “At 8300 meters, during summit push!…No shame, no ethics–only money counts.”

[Photo] Michael Kodas

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Marcin crawled out of his tent screaming, although the wind was strong enough that nobody else in the camp heard him. Earlier in the season, Camp Three was crowded by dozens of tents and climbers, but now there were only six or eight tents left. Everyone in camp would have known that the person they were stealing from was in the midst of his summit bid and would be desperate for the gear on his return.

“The robbery I experienced at Camp Three was simply a robbery on my life,” he wrote. “Had I been just a bit more tired, I would probably have entered the tent and my body would have been found there the next season.”

Five hours earlier Marcin had summited Everest in the best of styles–alone, and without bottled oxygen. Now, after all three of his high camps had been burglarized, he faced the very real possibility of dying for lack of a stove and a sleeping bag. He summoned the last of his strength and staggered from tent to tent in the growing darkness to beg from the Sherpas still in camp for enough equipment to survive the night.

“Probably the same guys who stole my gear in the day,” he wrote.

“The Sherpas have lost their honor in the past years. You can’t even imagine how cunning they have become. Daring even–who will steal more, who will grab the most valuables–this is what the Sherpas are talking about when they are playing cards in Base Camp.

“In 98% of the population, Sherpas are great guys. But [they make] me think of them all in very dark colors…Because they tolerate the bad 2%.”

It’s a cold irony, Marcin points out, that often the best climbers, who are in small, independent groups or alone, are the easiest prey for thieves up high.

In an effort to preserve mountaineering’s wholesome image, many expedition leaders and guides dismiss thefts as rare; but as weather windows opened up on other popular Himalayan peaks in 2005, it became clear that high-altitude burglaries were not isolated incidents. On Ama Dablam, an Italian climber who remained in Base Camp while his teammates were climbing high on the mountain awoke in the night to a knife cutting through the back of his tent and a hand reaching in to grab his equipment. When he got out of his tent, he found the team’s two other tents already slashed and emptied. Meanwhile, at Camp Two on the mountain’s southwest ridge, guide Luis Benitez arrived to find climbers in his sleeping bags and helping themselves to his food and fuel. In late June, not a month after all three of Marcin’s high camps were robbed, Czech climbers arriving in Camp Two on Nanga Parbat, the second-highest mountain in Pakistan, found that someone had used up or stolen all of their stove fuel. Three weeks later, a team of Kazak climbers on K2 in Pakistan returned to their Advanced Base Camp after resting lower on the mountain.

“At their arrival in ABC, the guys found out that someone has stolen all of their equipment, including crampons,” the Web site Russiaclimb reported. “The final summit push is not happening.”

The thefts ended the Kazaks’ climb, but it could have been far worse, as an incident reported a day later from the mountain next door showed.

Don Bowie was already disgusted when he headed up Broad Peak, a mountain neighboring K2, for his second summit bid. During his first climb up high, Don was in Camp Two when a renowned Polish climber, Artur Hajzer, who was at 7,850 meters on his way to the summit, fell and broke his ankle. At that altitude, many climbers consider a busted leg synonymous with death, but immediately after the accident, ten climbers from various countries formed a rescue team that would spend three days bringing Artur down. Don, who works with a Sierra Nevada sheriff’s department search and rescue, headed up from Camp Two toward Camp Three to join in the effort. Though the mountain was packed with up to fifty climbers, they had about half as many people as they needed for the operation. Yet during the three days that Don pleaded over radios with climbers in every other camp, nobody else joined in the rescue. From Camp Two, he could look down on a large commercial team throwing a party in Base Camp. But when he called down for help, only one other climber pitched in. Some said they needed to save their strength for their summit bids. One commercial leader didn’t even pass the request for help on to his team. And the climbers descending from Camp Three just passed by the rescuers. When the exhausted team got to the bottom of the peak, the other expeditions sent cooks and kitchen boys with no mountaineering equipment to help carry Artur to Base Camp.

Don was happy that the mountain was deserted when he went back a week later for his second attempt on the peak. There wouldn’t be anybody around to rescue him if he got into trouble, but after his experience with Artur, he knew there were few people he could count on for a rescue anyway. Nonetheless, Don let everyone know that he was heading back up onto Broad Peak alone.

Kodas climbing Everest. [Photo] Michael Kodas

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Don made it to Camp Two in a couple days, where he waited out a storm, passing the time with food, fuel, and a coffee table book salvaged from the trash left by other expeditions. When the weather cleared, he climbed on to a point just below Camp Three, at 7,000 meters–23,000 feet. But he recognized that the fresh snow had created serious avalanche conditions. Climbers on K2 he spoke to over his radio reported that storms were about to slam the weather window shut. And the rescue a week earlier had weakened him far more than he realized. Don gave up on reaching the summit and headed back down the mountain fast. Fresh snow and avalanches had buried the fixed ropes, and digging them out further drained the already exhausted climber. He was rappelling down the rope below the last camp on the mountain when he happened to look over his left shoulder.

“I caught something in my eye and immediately stopped,” Don said.

The rope had been cut. He was within three feet of sliding off the end of his line and falling down the mountain.

“What the hell is going on?” he thought.

Maybe an avalanche or rockfall cut the line, he hoped, optimistically. Don got out his ice ax and downclimbed to a rock tower where he remembered that the next set of ropes were anchored. When he got on top of the pinnacle, he peeked over the edge. The rope and all the anchors that kept it in place were gone. In all, some 1,600 feet of rope had been taken from one of the most dangerous parts of the route. And like Marcin, Don was certain that the thieves knew they were likely killing the climber still high on the mountain above them.

Below, a thin layer of ice covered the steep gullies and vertical faces. If he didn’t die in a fall when some piece of the mountain gave way, the rocks coming loose and tumbling down the vertical bowling alley would probably take him out. But it was the only way down. Don scrambled into the gully with no safety line.

The first rock to hit him, the size of a baseball, put a hole in his pack, smashed some gear, and nearly knocked him off the mountain. Even with his helmet on, it probably would have killed him had it struck his head.

“The very first one I took was a death blow,” he said. “I thought my chances of falling or getting knocked off by rocks was pretty high. I was really surprised when I got down to lower sections of rock and mixed rock and ice that I had not been hit at that point any worse than I had.”

It took two and a half hours for Don to downclimb a section that would take about fifteen minutes to rappel. He staggered away from the mountain, so exhausted that he was falling over, and having to sit and rest after each hundred meters he walked. He tried to remain vigilant; he didn’t want to die on horizontal ground after making it through a downclimb that by all rights he shouldn’t have survived. When he got to the alcove where he had stashed his food and equipment, he found what he expected: All of his supplies were gone.

The following month, the Alpine Club of Pakistan issued a press release.

The Alpine Club of Pakistan has taken a serious note of theft incidents which occurred on K2 and Broad Peak recently, and has decided to set up an Inquiry Committee under the Chairmanship of renowned Pakistani mountaineer Col Sher Khan to investigate into the allegations, identify the culprits, and recommend suitable remedial measures for the avoidance of such like incidents in the future.

On September 7, at the Ministry of Tourism in Pakistan, an Inquiry Committee from the Alpine Club of Pakistan searched and questioned a porter who had been working on K2 when the series of thefts occurred on that mountain and Broad Peak next door, but found none of any team’s missing gear. No further investigation of the thefts that plagued the 2005 climbing season has been reported.

Don Bowie learned for himself how effective law enforcement was in the high peaks when, two years after his desperate retreat from Broad Peak, he reached the summit of K2 during his second trip to the Karakorum mountains. He and two teammates rescued a collapsed climber as they climbed down from the top. But when Don went to continue his descent the morning after he reached the summit, he discovered that someone had taken his crampons–theft would again threaten his life. With no way for his boots to find purchase on the steep ice as he descended from the high camp, Don eventually fell and would have slid off the mountain if he hadn’t crashed into a snow bank, tearing several ligaments in his leg. Fearing he had broken his ankle, Don crawled down the mountain, pleading for assistance from more than a dozen climbers who literally stepped over him rather than help. He eventually threatened to impale passing climbers with his ice axe if they didn’t drop a rope for him to continue his descent.